The Alchemy of Digital Marketing As Inspired by Renaissance Masters

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.. Einstein

I was reading Thomas Cahill’s exquisitely written “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, when it occurred to me that to be brilliant in marketing today is more like being a Renaissance man; trained in a broad range of skills that mesh the rational with intuition and the quantitative with imagination.  Not only that, though, I chose to plant this post in the soil of “alchemy” and the renaissance tradition precisely because the central theme of a Renaissance man that applies to us here is their ability to traverse between the rational and imagination effortlessly. They afforded equal vigor to the pursuit of scientific truths as they did to philosophical contemplation. This paradoxical and improbable juxtaposition created the fertile soil for brilliant minds like Francis Bacon and Thomas Aquinas to shape the foundation of our modern, techno-rich, hyper-fast digital world.

This is the context then within which I profile the “digital Renaissance marketing man” of today. We need to be broadly trained across a wide range of skills, yet also be trained at blending the rational with the “ephemeral”. We must learn to command quantitative statistical theory, exhibit sound creative judgment, understand commerce requirements, demonstrate keen graphic sensibilities, provide key insights on sociological trends, follow emerging Internet technologies, be sensitive to the platonic-sized demographics shifts and be masterful influencers.

In seeking to achieve such competency, we can be guided by the example of our Renaissance teachers through our commitment to a rigorous learning path inspired by the noble goal of learning simply for learning sake. In keeping with this tradition, I will advocate understanding digital marketing for the sheer joy of learning, without thought to commercial gain. With true inquiry as our motivation, truths are discovered and once insight is achieved, these newly acquired skills are yours to command to rival the accomplishments of any marketing scholar.

The philosopher’s stone of marketing

The philosopher’s stone was the legendary, magical substance supposedly capable of turning base metals into gold. I like the illusion for our purposes here, especially as it is consistent with our renaissance inspiration.

So suspend your modern sensibilities for a time so that we may begin our training into the secret alchemy of turning ordinary marketing tactics (base metals in our alchemy world) into marketing gold with the philosopher’s stone, embodied in digital marketing. Indeed, I contend that digital marketing’s transformative power similar to the philosopher’s stone can be activated if one learns the secret blend which is, in equal measure, rational analysis combined with creative intuition to use digital marketing to engage us.

That’s the rub though. Achieving this magical balance can be as elusive as catching the unicorn in the thick forest – and no wonder – it’s very difficult. The first problem we encounter is that digital marketing is so new that it cannot be analyzed with rational metrics. Then there’s the very practical concern around risking resources with new programs where it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will perform.  On the creative side, you have to rely on digital agencies or small technology companies to interpret the technology into a creative concept, often clouding your instincts given the sheer novelty of the medium.

But again disciplined training will help us rise above the challenges because we can learn new ways to evaluate these new media, and in ways that let us merge rational metrics with intuitive sensibilities. How we do it? By making a study of the Big 6 – the primary elements or ingredients of successful digital marketing.

6 Elements That Unleash the Transformative Power of Digital Marketing

I put forth what I think are the six main elements of digital marketing, as key to us today as the four  “roots” or elements of earth, air, fire and water were to Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist  who lived in 5th cent BC Sicily.  With these 6 primary elements, one can begin spin magical digital marketing programs reasonably and reliably (notice that I continually merge the magic with the metric – a skill that comes with deliberate practice).

1) Seek knowledge – not just information.

A researcher once told me to be suspicious of any analyst who said numbers were objective. He helped me understand that data can provide the answer to any question – the trick is to know how to interpret the data.

I make this point to highlight how important it is in any quantitative exploratory that you be absolutely clear about what you want to know going in. You can drown in data without having learned how to do anything better. To avoid the “data analysis paralysis” trap, be disciplined and work on getting data that you can clearly see driving to a specific business result. It requires a lot of self discipline not to accumulate all types of data, but it will cost far more in a lack of focused answers than all the mounds of data will be worth. So seek out knowledge – not information.

2) Create solid information systems.

Building on the point above, creating solid business information systems is sadly often, overlooked and neglected, especially in technology companies (ironic – no?).  This is a great pity because solid information systems are a key touchstone of any successful digital marketing campaign, arguably any business.

Eventually, though, every company comes to the “OMG, we need a system to track campaigns” moment. Then “all of sudden” there is a flurry of urgency to buy or build systems that are dicey and prone to data glitches. This is a recipe for disaster for a couple of reasons.

First, building information systems takes discipline, patience and a creative approach to information architecture. If ever there was a time to spend money on outside help, this would be it. Get an information architect or business analyst to help you create a system with a management dashboard to get at high level, mission critical information quickly. Time is not your main consideration here – creating a solid system is.

Second, know that information systems take time to mature to work out the kinks. If the success of any program is wholly dependent on the data from these new systems … hold your breathe and be extra sure to manage everyone’s expectations. It is as likely to fail as it is to work in the first try at it.

If you find yourself in this “OMG” position, take firm hold of this project and drive it an actionable conclusion. Do not leave it solely to data architects or business analysts. Apply your judgment to create an information system that permits you to give data its due without ever being enslaved by it. If done correctly, this type of infrastructure will illuminate your business because you can trust the information to be solid and reliable without ever blinding you in the process.

3) Every program has a purpose and a place.

Yes, there are loads of new technologies out there and more to come and in greater frequency too, so it becomes difficult to evaluate all of them. To stay head of the curve, learn to apply the “rule of purpose” to each new idea. This rule requires that before any new technology is considered, it is linked to a specific marketing program or goal. By applying the “rule of purpose” you will evaluate only those programs that can drive business results today without wasting a lot of time on programs that are cool but not useful at the moment.

4) Use common sense in evaluating new approaches in digital marketing.

We’ve all been there. The sales person, properly groomed with the right amount of product to sculpt his perfected coiffed style, is giving you all the right promises; low CPA, low CPM, low CPR or high conversion, high efficiency or high impact.

But by the time he is done, it sounds almost too good to be true. If you find yourself getting that, “too good to be true” feeling, that’s your first red flag. Your common sense is trying to tell you something and you should listen with an appropriate amount of skepticism. Ask for business cases, be clear about how the program will be measured and include a contingency in the contract if something goes wrong.

Yet, the seduction of these programs demands we consider them seriously. We can heed the call only if the programs adhere to some basic requirements:

  • It can not divert more than 3% of budget in terms of time, cost and labor
  • It can not exceed your cost per acquisition metrics – and in most cases, these programs should beat current CPA metrics to make it worthwhile to divert efforts
  • The program does not rely one just one business metrics – but includes at least two success metrics
  • There is a clear “out” clause

Finally, after you have done your due diligence, be sure to apply the good old common sense filter again to the mix. If the program can withstand that scrutiny, then give it a whirl. Win or lose – you win because you learned something.

5) There’s no substitute for “hands on” experience.

Sorry to say this but nothing replaces personal experience. Renaissance training required lots of experimentation and we would be well advised to follow their lead. Unfortunately, sometimes agencies insulate us from this practical, real world experience much to our disadvantage. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate programs that are very technical, so no real personal learning is gained.  The larger agencies kinda avoid the whole mess by sticking to the mass media programs they can execute efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

That pretty much leaves you on your own. So to understand this stuff, you gotta simply roll you sleeves up and play with it yourself. Use social media (be safe please) to tweet and twine so you can experience the interplay within the digital social world. Explore how Facebook is viral but within a limited sphere. Try new approaches within semantic and real time search engines.

It’s critical to stay curious and maintain a willingness to experiment and play. As we all know, play is a great teacher, so avail yourself of this powerful method of learning.

6) Celebrate the creative mind.

For those of us on the marketing front lines, we want silver bullet marketing answers. For instance, Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buy-ology, is highly seductive because it gives us a well organized list of mechanisms that can be used to evoke specific purchase responses. Yet, his well documented set of markers and triggers obscures the real art of creating successful marketing – the creative spark that draws us in and compels us forward in the purchase process. This creative magic is the powerful pixie dust we all desire in our marketing programs, but make no mistake – it is creative magic steeped in science. Really? You bet and here’s how it works.

First, learn to trust the accuracy of your inner voice to guide your judgment of a campaign. Love or hate – allow yourself to first appreciate your reaction and then try to understand why you reacted as you did.

Next, marry your creative instincts with the science of digital testing. Exploit the internet’s ability to let you test incessantly and iteratively. It provides a great learning laboratory for new ideas and combinations. This is how art can be realized through science and how we can bring the best of both the rational and the creative to work together.

Finally, utilize all the new learning in neuro-marketing courtesy of Lindstrom and others to add a fully integrated and optimized approach. Mix it all up and you get the magic potion that transforms mudane marketing into marketing that sustains businesses in these transformative times.

In conclusion, dear students, we are reminded that in the Renaissance, men understood how to merge the ethereal, sublime nature of art and magic with logic and rational thought. With that as our model, we can create the new “magic” of today’s brilliant digital marketing world.

Men of science are men of art living on the edge of mystery… borrowed from J. Robert Oppenheimer

Judy Shapiro

PS – Given my training as a historian, I am deeply grateful to (and envious of ) Thomas Cahill for his clarity and precision with which he brings the lives of people from 800 years ago to life with relevance in today’s seemingly removed culture.

I hope the tone of this post is appreciated for its attempt to playfully discuss challenging problems in marketing.

Making the Magic of Digital Marketing Work

If you follow many of my posts here, you’ll know I advocate a balanced approach when thinking about how to introduce new marketing technologies within a mature, marketing planning model.

That’s easier said than done because there is fundamental disconnect in understanding how to use new technologies and in knowing what the business value of these technologies are. Often, there’s simply no way to know what they’ll do.

And that’s the hard core problem – these newer technologies are often time hogs with unknown results. If you do them, you are diverting precious resources from proven programs, but if you don’t, you could be missing great, new efficient programs that could really help.

*sigh* …

Agencies don’t help much either. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate lots of great ideas – but often the client has to execute (no small investment). The larger agencies kinda stick to the mass media programs they can execute these efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

So for those of us on the firing lines in the marketing world, let’s learn to become magicians. We have to learn create a solid foundation upon which we can create new “magic” program that brilliant marketing is all about.

 What this means is that we do a thorough “kick the tires” discovery of the new technology. Then decide where it “fits” in our marketing engine. It is meant, for instance, to “improve” the efficiency of how we spend marketing dollars as in remarketing programs. Or, is the program useful for adding new qualified emails to your database.

 No matter what you think the main objective is for the new program, be sure it delivers at least one other value beyond the key performance metric you have in mind. You may, for instance, do a co-reg program but it should also has value to you for improving the quality of your customer database. In short, don’t put your all marketing eggs in one metric basket because there’s a 50/50 chance that at least one thing will go wrong.

 Becoming a magician can be great fun and a challenge. But it can be done because it is really a function of practice, patience, persistence and a keen eye on the end game. Stephen L. Carter succinctly puts it, “Words are magic. We conjure with them.”

Start conjuring … but be smart about it.

Judy Shapiro

Keep your chin up Twitter!

 I feel a bit protective nowadays of Twitter, almost like the elder aunt who sees her younger relatives struggle with issues she figured out decades ago.

Why do I feel protective of them now? Because I see Twitter being hosed on so many fronts all at the same time. From technological challenges of a meteoritic rise to the scrutiny they must submit to as the poster child of some brighter tech/ financial future.  They get bashed every time there is a security problem – like the recent hack or their user imposter issues. And the unpredictability of their business risk must seem like a steady, intense diet of fear and frustration. All this is blended in with adrenalin rush they no doubt should feel at being one of the cool techno kids on the block, even if there is a niggling uncertainly about what the real upside might be.  

 But the worst part of the Twitter Boom is how they are quickly becoming the symbol of some new age, techno-gold rush with all the negative associations. In the past week alone, I have seen a steady increase in the number SPAM in my in box claiming all sorts of schemes to make a lot money using/ leveraging/ engineering Twitter. Like “How to build a brand on Twitter”, “How to use Twitter to hire superstars”, “How to create a new biz with Twitter” and my favorite  “Earn millions from the Twitter explosion”  – really. 

 This must be awful for the Twitter people. Trying to shut down these make money scams to protect their good name would be like trying to win at that awful “whack a mole” game. It is a losing, exhausting and demoralizing proposition. There must be a level of edginess that hovers over them.

 So my dear younger Twitter colleagues take some advice from your “elder aunt”. Fame may be fleeting, but once your 15 minutes of fame have passed, I hope you emerge at the other end stronger, more stable and less vulnerable. Hard work, perseverance and a long term perspective does almost always prevail.  

 Live and learn.

 Your distant but compassionately concerned “aunt”.

Judy Shapiro

How to achieve social media overload – in 6 hours or less.

I was unprepared TBH. All I did was post in AdAge, what I thought was a fairly sedate article about how the aggressive growth goals of Google reminded me of AT&T. And I wondered out loud if Google wasn’t possibly headed for the same sad fate as AT&T.

Now I guess going after Google should be done with care. I thought I had. Clearly I was wrong.

Within first 60 minutes after the article posted in Ad Age a few random reactions. Nothing much.

But within the next 60 minutes (or 120 minutes after the article first appeared), the deluge started in earnest. Over the following few hours, I was called oblivious, clueless, utterly ignorant of Silicon Valley sensibilities and my favorite just plain “dumb”. Ok I say to myself, I guess I should expect it. In fun, I posted the following Twitter posts (

By 10:00, I had gotten dozens of private contacts – not to mention a flood of comments on my blog. I had to edit many of them.11:58 PM Jul 7th 

Comments range- outrage from Google lovers, praise from Google haters and nostalgia from ex-AT&T folks.11:58 PM Jul 7th 

So for efficiency which is what Twitter is primed for my responses to all herewith …11:58 PM Jul 7th 

GOOGLE LOVERS: My admiration for Google knows no bounds. But arrogance or miscalculations because of arrogance has real cost in human terms.11:59 PM Jul 7th 

GOOGLE HATERS: I am NOT your new high priestess. I simply notice that when big companies fail it is often the little guy who pays the price.11:59 PM Jul 7th 

FOR EX-AT&T EMPLOYEES: My time there nourishes me to this day. I hope you were able to say the same for each of you.12:00 AM Jul 8th 

The cascade continued. Then, the article was picked up by Silicon Alley with a link back from Fortune and CNN. And the comments continued unabated.

 I try and take the comments with a sense of equanimity, but it does get hard. And the real lesson learned? When you take a controversial stance, it seems 6 hours is the amount of boil time needed for the social media pot to start to whistle. It may not be a statistically projectable test case, but this experience has been an eye opener. And BTW – the kettle keeps simmering for at least 4 days after the initial blowing of its top.

I may have to try this again just to test my hypothesis. Then again, maybe not. 

Judy Shapiro (

BING versus Google: Will “Judy Consumer” get the difference?

We consumers seem to becoming just pawns in the power struggle between the two Internet born behemoths of Google and Microsoft. To Google, we are “products” to be sold to highest bidding advertiser and to Microsoft we have been reduced largely to a software license.  When I see the battle of these two corporate super powers play itself out on the grand stage, I am left feeling awed and also feeling rather puny too. 

 So when I read the plethora of opinions being spun by experts about whether BING is better than Google, I wonder what “Judy Consumer” thinks. I do suspect that no matter what the experts think, both views introduce largely technology benefits whose subtleties are probably largely lost on the vast majority of “Judy Consumers” in the real world who use this stuff.

 What the “Judy Consumers” of the world do know is the new BING advertising campaign which promises that BING is not a just search engine but a decision engine. I can imagine the agency/ client meetings assessing this positioning versus that. I can hear the focus group comments that came from the testing that no doubt went into the creation of this campaign. And I can certainly feel the excitement (maybe even a little tension) as the agency reported on the research results in support of the recommended campaign. Been there, done that.

 Clearly the BING campaign is meant to communicate that people will get to the relevant information they want faster than Google. But this almost a technical benefit (aka better filtering of search results) is lost in the grandiose nature of the BIG BING promise as a decision engine. Maybe I am just too independent minded (and not the primary target), but I can’t help resisting the notion that Microsoft technology will decide anything for me.  What I really want is technology to give me the information I need to make the decision I want. So the premise of a decision engine falls flat to my ears. But hey everyone’s a critic.

 So then I went to look at how does BING delivers in its decision making promise. I did the first search that came to mind – I searched my name. Ya’ know what? Google did much better and was more accurate than BING by far. In fact, I could compare results very efficiently via a site called that David Pogue of the New York Times was kind enough to introduce me to in his recent article.   

 I tried again thinking that I am not nearly important enough to have a depth of results to get an adequate idea of how BING works. So I decided to search the term “online trust”. The results were no more satisfying this time. True – BING does have a few nifty features like the related searches and the excerpt from the site without having to click around, but beyond that, TBH, I could see no perceptible difference.

 Maybe I am not looking hard enough and I certainly did not put it through its paces as David Pogue did for his NY Times article. Or just maybe the differences are too subtle for “Judy Consumer” to notice or for anyone to even care enough about to look for these extras.  And this is where BING is at a distinct disadvantage because inertia is one of the most powerful marketing forces on the planet. While that’s good news for Google, it’s bad news for BING because I suspect people will try BING for kicks, but drift back to their inertia induced Google search patterns.

 So what will “Judy Consumer” really think? I don’t proclaim to know but I hope “Judy Consumer” makes up her own mind and not rely on either Microsoft or Google. Or the pundits either for that matter. They know too much.

Judy Shapiro ( )

Google Voice: What’s up with that?

As an ex-AT&T “Bell head” anything telecom always gets my special attention. So when I saw the “Google Voice” re-announcement recently I couldn’t help wondering, “Huh, what’s up with that? How does this fit into Google’s core business?” Mostly though, I was interested in understanding why this and why now?

First, let’s put Google Voice in perspective. I’m gonna put it out there and say Google Voice is, IMHO, a refined GUI within a fairly standard VoIP version of unified messaging with number portability thrown in (sorry all for the techno-jargon, but a factual articulation of the technology seemed in order). Nice, but hardly deserving of the media gush that quickly followed this re-announcement, especially since Google Voice is a rebranded version of their Grand Central “one number for life” initiative launched in 2006. So this notion of having the same phone number for life has been done and redone dozens of times over the past dozen or so years. 

Now we all know that anything Google launches tends to bask in the Google glow, defying critical analysis.  So I seemed to be the only one interesting in knowing – why now?

In a recent Computerworld article by Mike Elgan, “Why Google Voice is free,” (6/27/09), Mike began to get at an answer of “why now” when he correctly contended that Google intends to monetize this free service via new advertising vehicles within their voice network.  While that answer makes total sense, it still didn’t get at the “why now” part of my question.

And then I was struck with a déjà vu moment – I realized with a jolt that Google is doing now what AT&T did in the 1980s and 1990s – I know since I worked at AT&T at that time. In fact, Mike Elgan made a similar connection when he observed that, “Google Voice means Google is technically, literally and actually a telephone company.”

Once I put that together, I realized that Google seems to be following in AT&T’s footsteps more closely than the media, or even they may realize. But more interestingly, that connection best explained the “why now” part of my question.    

First a quick AT&T history lesson. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s AT&T was in its full power as a global innovation brand fueled by its dominance in the communications business. While the diversity of the AT&T business was amazing, it was generally focused on communications, and they stayed “close to their knitting” (AT&T had many such quaint terms).

But competitive communications pricing pressures being what they were, AT&T expanded into business well beyond its core competency starting in the late 80s. It dabbled in home security, launched PCs, sold electronics games and even explored Pay-Per-View (PPV). They did this so they could grow by controlling digital information delivery channels from its source to its final consumption points to leverage the vast AT&T infrastructure. This explains lots of these diverse AT&T businesses, including their short-lived attempt to build their own internet via a project called “HomeCenter” (circa 1994).

These ambitious (dare I say arrogant) goals were necessary to fund its “big” company overhead. So it played in lots of industries because it could and because the cache of the AT&T brand blinded the leadership into believing that such an AT&T Information Network goal was achievable. So tons of resources were thrown at these diverse business plays in the hopes of reaching the business promised land that a lock on controlling information to users would have provided.

We all know how it turned out. In the briefest of years, AT&T went from a powerhouse to literally being almost a shell of its former self, regulatory issues notwithstanding. Only now, nearly 25 years later, is it beginning to make a brand comeback.  But it will probably never relive its former glory days.

So flash-forward to Google today and why Google Voice now?

Right now, Google is in its prime and has become the arbiter of technological coolness, much the way AT&T was in its day. And like AT&T in communications, Google has a very strong hold on the online ad market, but it’s facing new types of pressures from technology, as well as new business models. Furthermore, the Google PPC money machine is losing its grip and has, by many accounts, already plateaued.  This is similar to what happened with AT&T when MCI entered the field.

So much like AT&T did 20 years ago to maintain its growth, Google is trying to do the same – control the data distribution channels. In the case of AT&T, it was all about information delivery to business and residential users. In the case of Google, it’s all about advertising delivery to its “product” – to its users of its services.  

The trouble with wanting to dominate all delivery channels (whether it be information or advertising) is that you are forced to go further and further afield from your core competency. And while “playing” in disparate businesses is something a leader brand can afford to do, over time the core business tends to suffer – slowly, but inextricably. And then at some point, you are willing to throw out the knitting needles. AT&T did, and that did not end well. Google looks like to be headed in the same direction.

So the launch of Google Voice lets me see these parallels more clearly. As wonderful as Google Voice may be, I am tempted to say to Google, “Stick to your knitting.”

Judy Shapiro

Change the name of something and you change its essence.


It is a concept that has been explored for millennium. In the bible, to suggest a significant life change, a person’s name was changed… Abram became Abraham and Sarai (Abraham’s wife) to Sarah. That concept still holds true today. Most parents understand intuitively the significance of choosing the name of their child and naming of new products requires careful deliberation about what it invokes.

 So when I saw today Melih Abdulhayoglu CEO of Comodo tweet about DV SSL certificates, it reminded me of the concept only in reverse. Ever one for the clever turn of the phrase, Melih’s post suggested that the name of DV SSL certificates, which usually stands for “Domain Validated” connotes a level of trust that is inappropriate to what it actually delivers. His tweet today asked, “how can Certification authorities issue DV (Dangerous Validation) certificates to ecommerce and keep a straight face????”

 Well said. In the ecommerce world, it is important for the buyer to know who they are interacting with. A DV SSL padlock only tells the potential buyer that the information he is transmitting, like his precious credit card information, is encrypted. But what good is encrypting the information if you don’t know who you are encrypting for. It is like giving the keys to your house to a total stranger!

So friends, buying online a great thing, but do it well and do it safely. Ideally, when buying online, buy at sites with an EV SSL certificate, these sites have a noticeable green color in the address bar. The “EV” stands for extended validation and this authenticates the business information behind the site. That is what you really want to know – that there is a real, verifiable businesses selling you the merchandise.

If the site does not have an EV SSL certificate and you see the yellow padlock, it can get dicey. Some sites have verified business information because they bought an OV SSL certificates – “organizational validated”. To find out if a site has an OV certificate, click on the padlock and you should be able to find the business name and address. But many sites have these DV SSL certificates and these are the ones to watch out. The only thing you know about this site is that someone was able to buy a domain for $10. It does nothing to tell convey trust. Remember that!

Now I realize that the average consumer does not care about the name of an SSL certificates because they probably don’t know what an SSL certificate is in the first place. But for those of us who do know, spread the word…DV SSL certificates are “dangerous validation” …

Let’s see if we can the change essence of DV to be the bad thing it really is. We have to start somewhere.

Judy Shapiro

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